It's clearly the latter.
With all due respect, the Obama campaign was never about policies or ideas or a political platform. It was a movement. The man who I've derisively called "the Changemaker" ran on the same, tired Pelosi/Kerry/Dukakis platform that the Democratic Party has put forth for the better part of a generation and that voters have repeatedly rejected. He is much more Carter than Clinton.
Obama's campaign was about image and platitudes, and about the whole being more than the mere sum of the parts. As David Brooks so astutely noted in early October, the reverse was true of Sen. McCain's campaign: He probably had the more practical ideas, and likely, the policies that resonated with the majority of the population. But Team Maverick lurched haphazardly among themes and never seemed able to drive a consistent message. Team Hope enjoyed a monopoly on vagueries.
Yesterday, a well-reputed exit poll asked voters, among other things, to identify their partisan affiliation. Forty-four percent of voters identified themselves as "moderate," about a third "conservative," and less than a quarter identified themselves as "liberal." This indicates to me that the country remains center-right, or at least firmly moderate. And it also indicates to me that Obama -- who ran in every way as the anti-Bush and attempted to tie the president around McCain's neck at every turn -- successfully made this election a referendum on the Bush administration.
Sen. Obama is a smart man. His chief strategist, David Axelrod, is a brilliant man. They seized upon this pervasive anti-Bush, anti-Republican sentiment among a center-right electorate and used it to bury the quintessential center-right candidate. The fact that Obama successfully ran as a middle-class tax cutter and talked of fiscal discipline is a damning criticism of what the Republican Party (sans McCain, Coburn and a few others) has become: A corrupt (Stevens, Craig, Vitter, Delay, Cunningham, Abramoff ... need I go on?), incompetent (Rumsfeld), do-nothing (the 109th Congress), big government (the Bush administration generally) party. Just like with the Democrats in 1994, voters decided it was simply time to throw the bums out.
It thus can be said that George Bush beat John McCain twice -- once in the GOP primary in 2000, and again in the general election campaign in 2008.
What's most disappointing about this election to me is not that the Democrats have swept back into power, or that the Republican Party is in disarray, or even that a Republican candidate lost the race for the White House. It's about the Republican who lost. John McCain is an honorable man, an American hero, and his independent streak was exactly the tonic for what ails our country and our government. He's perhaps the most qualified candidate for the presidency that we'll ever see. Among the Senior Senator's many admirable qualities, his affinity for the hard challenge is perhaps his greatest asset. I'm genuinely disappointed for him. He deserved better.
It's bitterly disappointing that George Bush beat him again.